Life growing up in our Italian neighborhood was one long food fight that finally ended when a Norwegian family with eight kids moved into the old Cabaldi place.
It took about a month but the local cuisine took a nosedive when kids in the neighborhood discovered the delights of Mrs. Larsen’s Norwegian French toast, which she insisted the Vikings brought back from France. I guess they also brought back the foot deep powdered sugar she sifted over the top. Mrs. Larsen introduced us to potato klubb and lefse but it was the desserts that dissolved any remaining loyalty to the Wednesday pasta days. You can eat just so much pasta but those cream-filled Norwegian desserts were powerfully intoxicating to an Italian kid. It was mutiny.
To be honest, if you grew up in an Italian neighborhood you already know that food is not just fuel, it’s a whole lifestyle. And because Wednesday was Prince Spaghetti Day for the rest of America, the homemakers on the street would work overtime on Wednesdays outdoing each other with fresh pasta and homemade sauces. My mother, who was Irish, never quite got into the swing of “mucking about in the kitchen all day,” as she put it. To be fair, she was a career woman whose idea of haute cuisine was bread pudding made with Wonder Bread and topped with heated up lemon pudding mix.
Grandma, however, was the neighborhood food critic and arbiter of all things Italian culture. At just under five feet with sensible black cuban heel shoes and a bobby pinned bun perched on the top of her head, she was the only one who didn’t bother to hand out fresh pasta and sauce every Wednesday like it was Christmas fifty-two weeks a year. Grandma saved herself for her ravioli and pannetone and hassling old Mr. Fumagali, the bread baker.
Mom and Grandma had an understanding and it involved keeping a shouting distance between them. Considering we lived next door to Grandma it took some doing to keep a sparring distance. Mom would pretend she wasn’t home when Grandma would knock on the door and Grandma would mutter, “Oh, my poor son, Joe” when she was within earshot of the front door, or anyone in the neighborhood willing to listen.
This is how it starts. First it’s the muttering, then it’s the words, then it’s plates of pasta and some sketchy sanitation. Let me explain. Fact: Italians love to cook and they love to eat. Mom, being Irish, never quite got the memo but she did get Grandma sitting like a troll next to Dad one Sunday afternoon each month. Until the Sunday when it all went to hell.
On this particular winter day, after much exhortation by Grandma that she needed to step up her wifely and motherly game in the kitchen, Mom was ready with a little surprise. The best dishes were set atop the best linens and the center of the table was ready to receive the main course. Pasta. Of course it was pasta. But not just any pasta. Mom had prepared a big platter of nude pasta she plunked dead center on the white tablecloth. To this day, what happened next is a bit of a blur. You’ll have to forgive me but I spent part of that meal under the table cowering beside our old collie.
Mom was a fan of Hunt’s Ketchup, or “catsup’ as she indicated was the proper way to pronounce it. Mom came out of the kitchen armed with a bottle of the ketchup/catsup shaking it like a rag doll. She unscrewed the cap and smacked the bottom of that bottle with the force of ten years of rage and most of the bottle came to rest in the center of the congealing pasta. Grandma grabbed her water glass and looked faint. My Dad looked trapped. Hostilities had commenced.
Mom merrily forked the pasta around to our plates and proceeded to slurp a few strands from her own plate until she realized the shock was wearing off. Jumping up with a hearty, “Dessert time!” she took her plate off the table and offered it to our collie, her faithful ally in any scheme to infuriate Grandma.
Old Lassie licked the plate clean as Mom declared, “She sure beats washing dishes all the time.” Being well brought up, she politely excused herself and marched back into the kitchen and shelved the plate in the cupboard with extra clatter that matched her mood.
My Dad didn’t dare move. But Grandma did. She jumped up plunging her place setting to its death on the dining room floor. I should probably tell you Grandma liked to tuck the tablecloth into her collar to catch any spills, something I noticed she only seemed to do at our house. But just than Mom stuck her head around the kitchen door frame and declared, “Who wants bread pudding? I made that lemon pudding sauce you like to go with it.”
The last I saw of Grandma for a long while was her rigid back marching next door to the beat of her sensible black shoes followed by the slamming of her front door. My subsequent visits were held at Grandma’s house. Mom was not invited. Dad went into hiding. The Sunday Dinner Incident was never spoken of again and remains, until today, the subject of much speculation and few facts.
We moved two hours away three months later. Dad told everyone he liked the idea of a little breathing room. Mom never said a word.